I was informally invited to apply for a postdoc position at a university in the UK. The professor will be the PI of that project and said I can use the resume and the covering letter I had once for a postdoc. The problem is that the advertised position asks for certain skills that I didn't highlight in the cover letter. So, I'm not sure if I should use trust the PI and use the original documents or I need to customize the files a bit more. Is the PI is the only person who reads the application documents? Or the files get analyzed first by the HR team and then they're sent to the PI?

  • I don't know how it works in the UK, but in the US context I would be very wary of generalizing any answer from one university to the next or even between different departments at the same university. Mar 10, 2021 at 19:20
  • @AlexanderWoo Things are more universalised over here, because HR and management have a tighter stranglehold
    – Yemon Choi
    Mar 10, 2021 at 19:57
  • Actually this potential PI told me to use the same documents I used in a different university. But this documents are already 80% close to the person specification, it's just this postdoc have extra skills (mostly soft skills).
    – U. User
    Mar 10, 2021 at 19:59

2 Answers 2


Similarly to the answer of @YemonChoi above, the way recruitment is supposed to work at the place I have experience (n=2, higher than @Yemon, but not massively) is that HR passes the documents, mostly without reading them, to a recruitment pannel chaired by the PI who holds the grant.

The panel independently score the applicants on a predetermined scoring scheme matched the person specification drawn up for the position (and normally advertised with it) and the applicants with the highest scores are invited to interview. For any internal redeployment or disabled candidates that are not invited to interview, there most be an explicit reason why not.

Interviews are conducted using predetermined questions/activities and the panel score the interviewees independently. After the interviews, the panel confer, but ideally, the best performing candidate is offered the job first.

Thats the theory.

In practice, the PI generally decides who they want to interview, and checks that the rest of the panel agrees.

At interview, most panel members don't bother to score on the predetermined criteria. After the interview, they have a conversation, but in the end the PI makes the decision. Scores are then created to justify the decision made.

What this means for the OP is that if the PI wants you, the rest of the panel will not get much say. That said, it probably can't hurt to make some optimizations to your materials, unless that will be very time consuming and you worry about a soft or hard deadline, or creating a poor impression to the PI for being slow.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer Ian, I took the safe road and customized the application a little bit. For my case, the PI is interested in my application and encouraged me to apply, and warned me that the competition is going to be tough, so I want to avoid creating a poor first impression.
    – U. User
    Mar 13, 2021 at 14:18

Caveat: I only have direct experience with one place in the UK (my current employers).

Based on this experience:

  1. The files pass to central HR first who are then meant to pass them onto a panel which will include the PI and selected colleagues. I am not sure if they undergo any screening beyond "were the right documents supplied".

  2. It is the panel's responsibility to make a shortlist, during which they will give applications a score based on certain tick-boxes. For instance, some of the criteria mentioned in the job advertisement might say

"Essential: experience with MATLAB or similar software"

and then the panel might give the application a score such as "3: exceeded" or "2: met" or "1: partially met" or "0: not met".

  1. The panel should have access to all submitted documents, not just the cover letter. However they are NOT meant to make use of external private knowledge, to avoid prejudicing the decision. E.g if the PI knows that you have done X, Y and Z but you don't include this in any of the documents, then strictly speaking they are not meant to use this when making their evaluation and rankings.

My observations are based on recent experience of being on such a panel, but not being the PI.

Depending on the institution and the discipline, the panel might include people from outside the specialist area but with some general experience in related project management; it could potentially include cross-faculty members depending on the nature of the project.

Usually the PI is the chair of the panel and hence informally gets "final say" in edge cases. Nevertheless, my recommendation would be to play safe and customize the documents a bit more -- it just makes it easier for supportive panel members to tick the appropriate boxes.

  • Thank you for your answer. I was just worried that documents will have an initial screeining by someone else before sending them to the PIs. But I think I'll play it safe!
    – U. User
    Mar 10, 2021 at 19:57
  • My experience (of two places, rather than one) is that what is described here is what is supposed to happen, but in reality, the PI asks a couple of their friends to be on the panel, will let them know ahead of time what his preferences are on the candidates. The PI will definately make the decision on who to short list. After interviews the PI will ask for the panels opinion, but in the end will make the decision themselves more or less independently. Any documentation will be written afterwards to fit the decision. Mar 11, 2021 at 18:50
  • @IanSudbery Sure, but I thought that I would give the author of the original question the "safe" advice rather than saying "hey the PI says you're in, so no need to sweat". I can only say that the description above is what happened for the panel that I was on, but perhaps that was due to a conscientious PI and colleague with whom I am on good terms.
    – Yemon Choi
    Mar 11, 2021 at 19:09
  • @IanSudbery You're welcome to write an answer setting out your experiences. (I mean this sincerely and without snark, since one point of SE platforms is that contrasting answers can be left!)
    – Yemon Choi
    Mar 11, 2021 at 19:11

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